PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island has found its new commissioner of education.
Gov. Gina Raimondo said Wednesday she is nominating Dr. Ken Wagner, an official in the New York State Education Department, to oversee elementary and secondary education in the state. Wagner’s appointment will likely be made official at a Board of Education meeting next week. He will succeed Deborah Gist, who took a job in Oklahoma.
So what do we know about Wagner? Here’s an overview.1. He spent a lot of time working directly in schools.
After Dr. Wagner earned his undergraduate and doctorate degrees at Hofstra University on Long Island, he worked four years as a school psychologist for the Freeport Union Free School District in New York, according to his LinkedIn page. From there he worked his way up the administrative ranks, first becoming an interim assistant principal, then an assistant middle school principal and ultimately a middle school principal by January 2004. Unlike previous Commissioner Deborah Gist, his LinkedIn page does not list any record of direct classroom experience.2. He was elected to his town’s school board at age 18.
Talk about an overachiever. When Dr. Wagner was still in high school, he was elected to Seaford Union Free School District Board of Education and remained on the board through much of his undergraduate career at Hofstra. In 1987, The New York Times profiled him in a piece that looked at how school boards in New York included few college-aged members. His reason for running: ”I saw so much apathy in the district,” he told the Times. ”I wanted people to get involved, whether that meant supporting me or voting against me. I know what affects young people and my main interest was improving the educational system.”3. He’s spent his career in New York.
Dr. Wagner transitioned from schools to higher-level administrative positions beginning in July 2006 when he became the director of administrative services for the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District. A year later, he was named a program administrator at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, an educational cooperative of 51 Long Island school districts. In 2009, he joined the New York State Education Department, moving from data director all the way to senior deputy commissioner for education policy over the next six years.4. He’s been “the face” of the New York State Education Department since 2015.
Although this will be his first time leading an entire state department of education, Dr. Wagner has been front and center in the education policy conversation in New York. Chalkbeat New York notes that he “became the face of the department in recent months, moderating the high-profile summit that brought researchers to Albany to discuss changes to teacher evaluations. Some within the department saw Wagner as the top internal candidate to replace [former commissioner John] King.” But MaryEllen Elia, not Wagner, started as New York’s education commissioner this week.5. He’s no fan of the test opt-out movement.
New York is one of the larger parts of the country to see significant opposition to Common Core-related standardized tests over the last two years, with at least 175,000 students opting out of the English Language Arts exam given in April, according to The Washington Post. When asked about opt-outs in 2013, Wagner told New York Magazine, “we really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable.” He said he agrees with parents who have expressed concern about over-testing, but warned that parents who allow their kids to opt out are “giving up the opportunity to get a critical piece of information.” That’s a similar argument to the one made by officials in Rhode Island, where at least 3,000 students opted out of the PARCC exam earlier this year. While New York education officials have said they support the PARCC, the state has still not begun using that test.6. He played a big role in New York’s new teacher evaluations.
New York is moving to a teacher evaluation system that The Wall Street Journal described as a “matrix-style review based about half on student performance and half on classroom observations,” with the student performance category based largely on growth made on standardized tests. The changes came after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed concern that too many teachers were receiving good evaluations even though their students weren’t college ready. That’s similar to the argument Commissioner Gist made in Rhode Island after the first round of teacher evaluations showed 95% of teachers were rated effective or highly effective. State lawmakers later rolled back evaluations for those receiving high marks, a measure Gist opposed. In May, Wagner moderated a nine-hour summit on evaluation that was dubbed “evalapalooza.”7. Here’s a video of Dr. Wagner talking to teachers about using feedback to grow professionally.
8. His free Common Core curriculum has been downloaded more than 20 million times.
Dr. Wagner led the development of EngageNY – it is nothing like Engage Rhode Island, by the way – which has been billed as the “first comprehensive, downloadable curriculum aligned to the rigorous Common Core standards,” according to StateScoop. In April, the math and English curriculum combined to be downloaded more than 20 million times by districts across the country. Even the U.S. Department of Education recognized EngageNY’s success in a blog post in 2014. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, also praised the curriculum in a report this year. “While not perfect, the materials offer educators – both inside and outside New York State – an important alternative to traditional textbooks of questionable quality and alignment,” the Fordham report stated.9. He likes to talk about collaboration.
We’ll know more about Dr. Wagner once he talks with reporters Wednesday, but the governor’s office provided several quotes in advance that seem to echo the sentiments of many education leaders today. On his approach to education, he said, “I approach my work with a rigorous commitment to open, honest dialogue with the people who matter the most – the students, families, teachers and principals – the people on the ground doing the hard work every day that makes learning happen.” He also called education a “shared responsibility,” arguing that “everyone has a stake in the outcome: teachers, families, employers, community leaders and most of all, students.” On learning, he said, “I’m dedicated to promoting personalized student learning, where every student is a part of a rigorous learning environment that meets their individual needs.”10. Here’s what three of Dr. Wagner’s supporters say about him.
Greg Ahlquist, the 2013 New York State Teacher of the Year, said: “Ken is a collaborative and visionary leader. He actively works to include the teacher’s voice and I can personally point to numerous times where Ken has empowered (me and other) teachers to have direct input in state level curriculum and assessment work.” Rick Longhurst, executive director of the New York State PTA, said Wagner “brought parents and families to the table as valuable partners in the education process. He reached out to us for ideas and feedback. He collaborated with us to present complex testing concepts to our members and readily engaged in dialogue over sometimes controversial state and federal policies. Even when we disagreed, he remained fully accessible, committed to true family engagement and determined to maintain productive two way communication.” Kenneth Slentz, a school superintendent in New York, praised Wagner for consistently reaching out to people in the field: “Whether it was the ‘Friday calls’ that Ken initiated with superintendents and assistant superintendents on matters of curriculum, instruction, and assessments; his meetings with the directors of NYS Regional Information Center on issues related to data systems and instructional technology; or his ad hoc groups formed to respond to particular issues, Ken remembered his principal roots and included smart minds to inform his thinking and recommended actions.”11. He was picked after a nationwide search.
The governor’s office says Wagner was selected following a nationwide search that began after Governor Raimondo held statewide listening sessions to talk with parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders about what she should look for when searching for Gist’s replacement. “Ken will provide the expertise and steady hand we must have to build consensus around the best ideas to promote student learning,” she said. It’s unclear how many other candidates were in the mix, but Chalkbeat New York reported that Jean-Claude Brizard, a former deputy chancellor in New York City’s education department, interviewed for the job. Locally, it is widely known that Andrea Castaneda, the well-respected chief of fiscal integrity and statewide efficiencies at the Department of Education, was interested in succeeding Gist. The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Education are expected to consider Wagner’s nomination July 13.12. He’s got a tough job ahead of him.
Assuming the board approves Dr. Wagner’s nomination, he’ll take over a department that needs to regain the trust of teachers after a contentious several years under Gist. But he’s also got two high-profile policy issues that will likely play a major role in his first few months on the job. State lawmakers nearly approved legislation that would have made it significantly more difficult for new charter schools to open, even though the state is nowhere near its 35-charter cap. Governor Raimondo, legislative leaders and even charter school advocates all say the state needs to make changes right away to its education funding formula and how money flows from traditional public school districts to charters. Then there are testing results. The first batch of scores on the PARCC exam are expected to flow in this fall and no one is optimistic about the outcomes. He’ll be forced to balance the uproar that will come from parents and teachers while also tackling the plans for improving scores moving forward. Don’t forget, the plan is still to eventually use PARCC as part of the state’s high school graduation requirements.Dan McGowan ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan